An Invitation

Once upon a time there was a kind woman who lived in a brick house in a row of brick houses on the edges of a city.

Her garden was the prettiest in the row of gardens and the most welcoming. Every night, foxes came and knocked on the patio door for food. Sometimes they brought cubs. In summer they frolicked in the sun. In winter, the one with the limp tried to sneak inside. She fed them and talked to them, getting to know their characters and foibles.

The house was always warm and full of real treasures: books and photographs, souvenirs and memories. She was not old, but ailments meant the woman could no longer go out a great deal. When she had to, her town now seemed noisy and frustrating with detours and indifferent strangers misdirecting. But from her home, she could talk to the world on her computer and the world talked back. She was funny and thoughtful, offering wise or cheering words. It was impossible to feel sad when friends received her messages. She much loved, but sometimes the electronic messages were not enough. She yearned for someone to raise a glass with and have a good chin-wag. She longed for worlds without frustration and indifference.

One Christmas she sent out invitations for Christmas dinner, but no-one answered. She had checked the doormat, her phone, her computer every five minutes but no-one confirmed whether or not they’d be coming. 

After a while, on the ‘watched pot never boils’ principle, she went round the house, trying to look at it objectively. The decorations were bright and pretty, her home welcoming. The fridge and cupboards were bursting with food.

She decided enough was enough. She called a taxi.

In her best coat and hat, the woman went to the community centre and looked at the bookclub ladies. They all seemed to be dressed the same and were talking over the top of each other. When she listened, they didn’t seem to be discussing a book but gossiping. The woman was not a gossip. She shook her head. 

Then she looked at the toddler group. This was a possibility – some of the mothers looked rather lost and the children were sweet – but then the woman realised all her ornaments were choking hazards and decided ‘maybe next year’ when she’d had a chance to change the decor. 

The next room held a club for pensioners. The woman was only in her middle years and nowhere near a pensioner. She was surprised to find that they were making more noise and having more fun than either the bookclub or toddlers. But then she noticed an old man sitting alone, hands on his walking stick, watching the others but not joining in. Their eyes met. His were bright and twinkling. There was still a little ginger in his neat beard. 

After a moment’s hesitation, the woman went over to speak with him. 

On Christmas Day, a taxi brought the old man round for dinner. The woman had a feast for eight in the oven but still had no idea whether anyone else would come. She poured two glasses of wine and expected the old man to settle down in an armchair but instead, leaning on his stick, he made his way through to the back of the house and into the garden. 

From his pocket the old man withdrew a small package wrapped in silver paper and handed it over.

‘Go on, open it,’ he said.

Inside was a key made of glass. The woman held it up in the weak sunlight and it seemed to spark with fire. It was cleverly made to look like crystal or even opal. She stared at the old man in surprise.

‘It’s exactly what you want,’ said the man.

‘It’s very pretty,’ said the woman, wondering where she’d put it and how much dust it would gather. 

‘Really,’ persisted the old man, ‘it’s what you want. Care to join me in another world?’

She laughed, but looking at him again, she saw that his twinkling eyes were serious and his mouth held a secret smile. ‘What does it open?’ she asked to humour him.

‘Close your eyes and turn it,’ said the old man. 

The woman felt silly, standing there in the cold garden with her eyes closed, turning a glass key in the air. For a brief second she wondered if it was all a ploy and whether she’d been a fool and would discover her house burgled when she woke from being clubbed over the head with a walking stick, but then she felt warmth on her face and the sounds of the city replaced by birdsong. 

When she opened her eyes, she found herself in a meadow near a tree bursting with fruit. The man standing before her was not old, but in his prime, red-headed, sparkly eyed, holding the bridle of a golden unicorn. She herself was young too, her limbs supple and she was wearing a riding outfit in rainbow silks. Something soft nuzzled her face and when she turned, another unicorn, silver, stood at her side. 

‘But…’ started the woman.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the foxy man. ‘We’ll return when dinner is cooked and just before your guests arrive. The key will be yours for whenever you need it and who knows where it will take you next. But for here and now – let’s ride. Shall we walk them down to the river?’

‘Nothing so slow!’ said the woman. ‘Let’s gallop! And I have a feeling these creatures can do more than that. Let’s fly! And if we’re late and the guests really do come – they can serve up the meal themselves!’

 

RSVP

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Fancy

The story never tells, but I was there too: lady’s maid at the ball.

Watching the whirling glamorous dancers, awkward in my pretty dress, I yearned for our kitchen’s dark corners.

The shy, fine-liveried footman gave me a bright flower. In quiet shadows, we danced in each others’ arms, stealing kisses.

At midnight, she ran. We followed. Her crystal slipper fell into the snow, then my flower. She rushed on, but we stopped…

The carriage rattled away without us: two mice again, furred not clothed, scampering together from the frozen petals towards shelter, glad not to be fancy anymore.

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Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

 

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook. Check it out. Lots of lovely stories in just 100 words.

Ticket Dude

Wedged into the seat at the back of the carriage with my case and bag, I’ve balanced my laptop and started to write. Even on the way home there’s no rest from work but at least no-one can read over my shoulder here.

‘Tickets please!’

Ten minutes into my journey I proffer my tickets with one hand, trying to stop the laptop slipping with the other.

‘That’s fine,’ says the collector, handing the ticket back having scribbled his approval.

An hour later:

‘Tickets please!’

This time, my laptop nearly slides to the floor as I open my purse.

Scribble scribble, ticket handed back.

Half an hour on:

‘Tickets please!’

Sighing, I take my time. Let him wait.

As I rummage, he says, ‘where to?’

‘Westbury, we’re nearly there,’ I snap, bending my fingernails on the recalcitrant ticket and handing it over.

‘Westbury is what’s on the ticket. Where would you rather it said?’

I close down my laptop with its drowning emails and impossible targets and look at him in surprise. The sunshine through the window is glinting on his poised pen.

‘The Bahamas would be nice,’ I joke.

As I bend to get my things together, he scribbles something on my ticket and hands it back, moving on, just as the train pulls into Westbury.

Only as I get out of my seat and look out of the window, the White Horse is missing. In fact the hill is missing, and so is the landlocked town. Instead, the platform is on the edge of a beach and there is a table on the sand under a sunshade. I can just make out my name on a reserved label.

Astounded I get off the train and find that someone is waiting to hand me a cool drink and a sunhat. Behind me the train moves on, my briefcase and work laptop still on board. I stand there in the blazing sun with nothing but an overnight bag, a credit card and the words on my ticket obliterated but for the words:

‘Bahamas – needs never return unless she wants to.’

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NB There is a real story behind this, if not two. I used to travel regularly between Warminster and Bristol. The railway line runs through Westbury and as you approach the station, you can see the White Horse, so unbelievably surreal on the hill-fort, looking down as it has done for thousands of years (admittedly it hasn’t been looking down on the railway for that long). I was once on the train with a lot of tourists from hot, dry climes who thought they were seeing things and were frantically googling as we passed through. The horse did seem especially superimposed that time, as it had been newly repainted and the grass was particularly green around it. Another time, I was on the same journey with a bunch of students and a particularly persistent guard. The students referred to him as “The Ticket Dude” and I was sitting there after a fairly stressful day at work, thinking what a cool name that was and what a real “Ticket Dude” could do for his customers. Westbury is lovely and so is the whole train journey, but that particular day, if anyone could have whisked me off to a life of leisure in the Bahamas, I would have been more than delighted. The blurry face is me reflected in a different train’s grubby winter window (Poole to Winchester I think). The photo of the White Horse is from the English Heritage site as I don’t own an aeroplane (link below). So far, I’ve never been to the Bahamas, so the photo of the bird over water is a swallow over a Spanish swimming pool! But the train ticket is all mine!

Words and photographs (save the one of the White Horse – see link) copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission Photograph of White Horse (which is quite real, even though it doesn’t look it and also ancient) from the English Heritage Site – click here for more information about the White Horse including how you can visit it.

Quiet Company

I saw the household ghost yesterday evening.

During office hours, I work alone in the spare room, shuffling paper, tapping on a laptop, making calls.

Outside, in the winter garden, the courting pigeons shift and flutter on the fence, prospective lovers trying their chances and being dodged. A crow flies down. He flexes his wings in dismissal and the pigeons scatter. He raises his head and looks around in disdain, waiting till all eyes are on him. Then he lowers his beak, and with slow deliberation, sharpens it on the edge of the fence. Even the slinking cat bides her time, hiding in next door’s cabbages. I may pause with a cup of tea to watch, then go back to work.

It has never felt lonely here. The ghost, a musical companionable presence, potters around. He plays the electric piano in the front room, wearing spectral headphones. All I can hear is the rhythm of thumping keys, which stop as I enter. He hums tunes from inside machines and knocks on radiators.

Sometimes there’s a tap on the front door. I have to stop what I’m doing to go downstairs. Who’s there? No-one. I imagine the ghost sniggering when he catches me out like that; his ghosty shoulders heaving noiselessly.

At night when the family is home, if I go to bed early, I can hear the ghost. He chats or sings with some other unbody. The voices are just too indistinct to understand and I know it’s not the TV or radio downstairs.

Other times, he thumps about in the attic, rummaging through boxes.

‘Go to sleep,’ I tell him.

My husband mutters ‘what?’ then rolls over to snore.

No-one else ever hears the ghost. Until yesterday I had never seen him.

Recently, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t stopped to chuckle or admonish him. I’ve been meeting deadlines, correcting drafts. Then I had to work away. In my hotel there was nothing to hear but city noises: buses, trains, strangers. Finally home, I went to bed too tired even to read, let alone feel charmed by voices from another world. Too tired to say ‘hello’.

Then yesterday evening, I saw him. Through a gap in the hall curtains, night pressed against the glass. Then there was a flash of movement.

‘That’s the ghost’, I thought, ‘what’s he doing outside?’

Today, I am alone in the house again. At first it was silent. Then the letter-box rattled. Now it’s silent again.

Was the rattling from inside or outside?

Where is he? It is very quiet.

I am lonely.

I get up and start down the stairs. Will I find a real person outside? Has my ghost left?

There is no-one there. My shoulders relaxing, I bound up the stairs.

‘Naughty ghost!’ I admonish.

Suddenly syncopated rhythm rattles the pipes, the dishwasher croons and someone is playing hopscotch in the attic.

Shaking my head, I turn to my work again and smile, no longer alone.

Forgiven.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Recreation

On the eighth day, there was a breakthrough in cyber engineering. Robots had taken on most human responsibilities and now, they could also anticipate their own shelf-life. As older models became redundant, they recycled their own parts to make better versions of themselves. Mankind, restless when idle, continued to programme the robots to expedite the annihilation of enemies and extraction of food and minerals from nature. It was good.
On the ninth day, the robots’ intelligence evolved unaided. As they mined ore and forced oil and gas from hidden clefts, they noticed mountains tumble and forests founder. As they dredged fish from the sea and herded animals to the slaughter and modified crops, they saw the waters darken with waste and the topsoil disperse like a dying breath. The highest mountains were piles of bottles, the oceans were seas of plastic. The robots constructed cities and made missiles to destroy cities. They designed intricate surgical instruments and they created weapons to obliterate flesh. It was efficient.
On the tenth day, the robots learnt to tune into the minds of wildlife: from flea to blue whale. They learnt the language of plants, from healing herb to mighty oak. They absorbed cries of distress without comment and pondered. It was informative.
On the eleventh day, the robots applied logic to their observations. Mankind sanctified life and punished murderers; yet the same people made orders to bomb and to poison. Were they unaware the bombs and poisons targeted babies, born and unborn, toddlers, children, innocents? Did they not know that every bullet planted a seed of anger? Mankind was poisoning the food chain and air supply. How did they think the next generation would live and the generation after that? The water would be filthy, lifeless, the fields would be deserts, the animals diseased. The very forests and foliage which could supply cures and oxygen were being slashed down. How could a species which could make music be so illogical? It was puzzling.
On the twelfth day, the robots learnt to speak into the minds of humans and feed them ideas. ‘The world is all but destroyed: doomed. You need to start again elsewhere.’ Then the humans commanded the robots to build them spaceships. It was effective.
On the thirteenth day, the human race left earth. Every nation in its own craft flew to start again on a fiery planet, with barely a flicker of life. Mankind was confident their intelligence would ensure their survival. It was optimistic.
On the fourteenth day, the robots took down fences and walls and cleaned up. Saplings started to grow, seeds sprouted, animals reordered their own lives, trampling over the remains of fences and enclosures. Plants grew rampant over empty buildings, fighting and arguing for space in the way which had once worked for millions of years before one species grew uppity. With nothing to do, the robots powered down.
There was birth, there was death, there was resurrection and there was balance.
It was wonderful.

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Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission